Thursday, August 01, 2013

What goes around

Way back a long time ago somebody created the first electronic digital computer.  It cost a lot of money to make.  So not everybody had one.  If you wanted to use a computer you had to go to it.  After a while somebody had the idea the computer had enough processing power to be used by more than one person at a time so they created a way for multiple stations called terminals to be added to the computer.  This was the beginning of the concept of networks.  Often the terminals were called “dumb terminals”.  They were called this because on their own they couldn’t really do much, they had to be connected to the computer to use its power and accomplish anything.  

That was a long time ago, and more recently somebody came up with the idea of a “personal computer” because real computers weren’t at all personal.  They were too expensive.  This is when I got involved with computers in the 1980’s.  Lots of people in business were buying a personal computer, because that was the thing to do.  It didn’t take long before they realized that even these personal computers should be networked.  In a situation like this you still had the main computer or what we called a Server.  But the terminals weren’t dumb, if you disconnected them from the network or the server they were still able to do something.  They couldn’t share the server based programs but they could still do things.  This was good because we often lost the server or the network for some reason and there were still some things we could get done on our computer.  Maybe work on a spreadsheet or write a letter.  

We called the business networks LAN’s which was short for Local Area Network.  It was good, but we still wanted more. Sometimes a company had workers that weren’t always in the office.  We needed to receive updates from these people however so we needed a way to get them into the LAN.  This was before the Internet was popular.  The solution was to go back to the old days of the Terminal.  Remote workers could “dial in” to the network via a device called a modem.  You did this over regular Telephone lines.  But at their fastest modems were still slow and trying to send everything back and forth over the line was just too much.  This was particularly true as Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) such as Microsoft Windows became more widely used.  One of the most useful solutions was to go back to the ideas of a Dumb Terminal.  The processing was done at the Server but the remote user could open a Terminal Session on his laptop or remote Personal Computer. This was called Terminal Services or later called Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).  It was a solution that borrowed back from the old days of the big computers.  

I don’t remember Terminal Services being widely used because each Remote User would tie up a modem and therefore a phone line.  Most companies who did use this had to schedule their remote users and coordinate what they did to keep down the costs.  Also the Remote User had to use the Operating System of the Server and not all programs worked on that OS.  And each user connected using some of the processing power of the server to do their work so if one user was doing a lot of number crunching, that affected the speed of all the other users.  There were issues I can recall, but this solution is still used today.  In many ways what we now call Cloud Computing is based on these same ideas.  You don’t need a phone line or modem, you use a Network card and the Internet.  Your computer has a program called a browser.  Popular ones are called Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Opera.  These browsers basically make a dumb terminal connection to Servers off in a Data Center.  You do many things based on this concept.  You search databases of products on Amazon for example and buy them.  

Most of us use this computing solution daily in our personal lives.  But what about for business?  Often we still have the 20 year old style of computing in a Local Area Network while being connected to the Internet (taking many risks).  We have learned to work around many of the disadvantages of this type solution.  I believe however that we can simply eliminate many of the problems by moving back again to Dumb Terminals or Terminal Services.  But borrowing from this actually 60 year old technology and making a couple of tweaks we have improved on the process.  Instead of the limitations of a LAN or an RDP environment we now have Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).  Each user can connect to their own personal Virtual Workstation or Virtual Machine (VM).  The Workstation has dedicated resources, so that if you are crunching numbers you don’t slow down everyone else.  Your VM can be unique from others but VM’s can be deployed by simply copying a file on a Server in the Cloud.  A VM is physically in a Data Center, accessible from just about any computing device you have, and protected from the many threats that you have a hard time protecting against in your office.  Maybe at some point I will write more about the benefits of the VM.

Virtual Machines are already widely in use, particularly by large companies but I believe they will become much more popular in the Small to Medium Sized business in the next few years.  As you can imagine there is a lot behind why I say that, I’ll tell you more soon.

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